- Consider the Dragonfly: Cary Wolfe’s Posthumanism
On the cover of Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism? (2010) is an image identified as “Untitled (dragonfly #1)” by Allison Hunter, on a grid of cross-hatched threads, with a streak of bluish-purple matching the color of the title. This “dragonfly” is not necessarily meant to answer—or pose—the question in Wolfe’s title. In fact, Wolfe does not consider dragonflies of any kind much at all in this otherwise erudite, wide-ranging, and impressive new book. But the cover art points toward the “two different senses of posthumanism” (xix) that are brought together here in relation to nonhuman animals and various forms of art: first, “the question of the animal,” deriving primarily from the late work of Jacques Derrida; and second, the significance of systems theory for contemporary literary and cultural studies, stemming mostly from Niklas Luhmann, in which both “dragonfly” and “art” would be best theorized as systems, rather than discrete entities representing “nature” and “culture.” Readers familiar with Wolfe’s work will recognize these two senses of posthumanism from his previous books: Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003); and Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the “Outside” (1998). What is Posthumanism? builds upon these earlier books and brings them together at the confluence of Derrida and Luhmann, in order to theorize a rigorous and systematic form of posthumanism that is used to attack the vestiges of humanism, wherever they might be found, from poststructuralist theory to animal rights philosophy, from painting and architecture to film, poetry, and digital media.
For Wolfe, the stakes of this critique are profoundly ethical, but it’s important to note that Wolfe’s ethics are ultimately Derridean. As a result, the book will not be satisfying for those readers looking for principles related to how one should treat specific nonhuman animals in specific contexts (including dragonflies, perhaps, but also cattle in factory farms, to take an example addressed by Wolfe several times). In addition, those looking for historicized readings of various texts with an emphasis on cultural politics might be disappointed as well. But Wolfe is certainly persuasive in his general theoretical argument that we need new ways of thinking about subjectivity and meaning that are no longer rooted [End Page 146] in humanism nor limited to “the human”: that, indeed, “the nature of thought itself must change if it is to be posthumanist” (xvi).
Wolfe’s book thus claims a central and definitive place in the “posthumanities” series he edits for the University of Minnesota Press, as the eighth of eighteen volumes either published or forthcoming at present. The series as a whole, which includes titles such as Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet and Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, represents an explosion of exciting and influential new thinking on posthumanism and the posthumanities. Wolfe’s own book is essentially a collection of previously published work on these questions, with only one entirely new chapter out of eleven. Many of the chapters make repetitive claims from one to the next, including citations of the same lines from Derrida and Luhmann. But the introduction successfully articulates how these chapters fit together to make a coherent whole, and many of the chapters have been substantially reworked in order to function together as a book, rather than as a collection of essays.
Wolfe divides the book into two parts. The first, “Theories, Disciplines, Ethics,” considers posthumanism in relation to fields such as systems theory, deconstruction, cognitive science, bioethics, animal studies, and disability studies. The second, “Media, Culture, Practices,” explores texts drawn from contemporary art, film, architecture, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wallace Stevens, and digital media. According to Wolfe, Part I highlights the “profound ethical implications for our relations to nonhuman forms of life...” (xxvi), while Part II focuses on “how we think about normal human experience and how that experience gets refracted or queried in specific modes and media of artistic and cultural practice” (xxvi). But these two general kinds of concerns are not bracketed off from...